The Toy of the Film, Or the Film of the Toy?

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How movies and TV shows have come to dominate the toy market

It’s impossible to ignore how today’s toy market has come to be ruled by films and television programs. From action figures to bicycles, soft toys to dressing-up clothes, the vast majority of kids’ toys and games these days are tied in with the likes of Darth Vader, Jack Sparrow, or Dora the Explorer. And if existing toy ranges want to compete, there’s only one thing for it – make their own movie! Transformers, Bratz, and Masters of the Universe are all lines of toys that have received the movie-star treatment, with more to come. But when did this relationship between toys and films begin, and how did it get so big?

A brief history of movie merchandising

The first notable production of a toy based on a film is still popular, and instantly recognizable around the world, today. In 1928, Walt Disney created the character of Mickey Mouse, who was an instant hit on the silver screen. Two years later, the first stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls were on sale, beginning a successful tie-in that has lasted more than eighty years. From Snow White onwards, successful toy ranges were produced to accompany Disney’s feature films. Other popular cartoon producers followed suit, licensing toys and other merchandise to cash in on the popularity of their characters.

In 1952, Mr Potato Head became the first toy to be advertised on television, netting over four million dollars in his first year on the market. Mr Potato Head would later experience a revival after his appearances in Disney’s Toy Story movies, which rejuvenated sales for several classic toy ranges. These days, Mr Potato Head continues to follow movie trends, and can be purchased with Darth Vader and Spiderman outfits, amongst others.

In the 1960s, a line of dolls were manufactured, based on US TV show The Lieutenant. Called GI Joe, this range of figures were instantly successful in the US, and are still popular there and in other parts of the world to this day. Other television and film series, including Batman and James Bond, had great success with merchandising spin-offs aimed at children. The explosion in toy and movie tie-ins

But the relationship between film and toy was taken to a whole new level in 1977, with the release of the movie Star Wars. The film’s creator and director, George Lucas, shrewdly realised that the heroes, villains, monsters and spaceships that populate the movie, lent themselves effortlessly to the toy market. Kenner’s range of Star Wars figure and toys came to dominate the toy industry for years to come, and original items of Star Wars merchandise are now highly sought after collectibles which can fetch a high price.

Toys start starring in their own movies

The massive success of Star Wars toys showed toy manufacturers just how important television and the cinema could be in marketing toys to children (and their parents). The 1980s saw an explosion in this style of toy merchandising, especially in the world of TV. In the early ’80s, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe became the first cartoon series to be based on a range of toys, rather than the other way around. This technique led to huge sales of the toys, and led to a spate of toy-related TV shows and movies based on toy ranges, including Care Bears, My Little Pony and Thundercats. In 1987, He-Man got his own movie, called Masters of the Universe, with Dolph Lundgren portraying the plastic action figure.

This was the start of a trend which would lead to the blockbuster movie Transformers in 2007, the biggest film so far to be entirely based on a range of toys. Another Masters of the Universe movie is in production, with a bigger budget than the original and the benefit of modern special effects techniques. The advent of CGI makes it much easier for filmmakers to recreate the world of toys on the big screen, and much loved toy ranges like Thundercats and GI Joe have films in the early stages of development.

Film and toy tie-ins are here to stay

Some may argue that such collaborations are cynically exploiting the “I want that” syndrome in the modern child. But it can also be said that the relationship between films and toys encourages imagination, story-telling, and creative development in children. After all, once the movie is over, children can continue the adventure at home, deciding for themselves how the story continues.

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